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Sunday, February 18, 2007

American Pastoral

My verdict on this Pulitzer winner was mixed. As a study of how tragedy can affect even those who try to lead blameless, unobtrusive lives, it was first rate and cut to the quick. The quotation that stuck with me (and that's not coincidentally widely reprinted) to this effect is:

He had learned the worst lesson life can teach — that it makes no sense. And when that happens the happiness is never spontaneous again. It is artificial and, even then, bought at the price of an obstinate estrangement from oneself and one’s history.

This is perhaps no different than the conclusion that many authors have drawn about tragedy and its aftermath, but the painstaking way Roth maps out the history of "The Swede," whose every move is calculated to try to bring happiness and success and kindess into the world, must be unparalleled. And his silent inability to cope after his world falls apart, after his world betrays him... I just found parts of the novel so gut-wrenchingly absorbing and fascinating and true in that respect. The other excellent observation Roth makes is about fanaticism and its connection to a disproportionate feeling of hurt. He paints an uncomfortable picture of the way societal extremes--murderous and peaceful ends of the specturm-- are closer together, and the undeniable attraction those extremes have for some people.

My problem, then with Roth, boils down simply to his misogyny. From his "robust" writing style to his inability to draw a single sympathetic female character, the book suffers from its overwhelming preoccupation with maleness. I searched myself long and hard to discover whether my feelings about Roth's storytelling might be parallel to the way a man feels reading "my" authors--Austen or Bronte or Toni Morrison...perhaps Anita Shreve or Maeve Binchy even. But while these women writers might focus on issues close to some female readers's hearts, (and some of them might be fond of writing "rakes" and "cads" who get their comeuppance) they are often harsh on characters of their own sex and always write compelling and redeemable male characters as well. I'd be interested to know if in his wider ouvre, P. Roth has written any really good leading ladies. At least from what I understand about his other work, the pattern described above pretty much holds.

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